A Blueprint of Interventions for an At-Risk Urban School
by Dr. Sam Bommarito
The past few years I’ve written the back to school article for our suburban IRA newsletter. The article has usually been on a single topic that would help teachers get off to a good start the new school year. I’m going to expand the scope of this year’s article considerably. I’m going to write on the topic of interventions that would help a low scoring urban school improve improve the ability of their students to read and write. The audience for this piece will not just include suburban IRA members. It will also include the staff and administration at my new building, which is an urban school with a large number of students scoring very low on reading achievement tests. As the reading specialist for the building, I will have a major role in implementing the building’s literacy project. Comment and insight from all readers about this blueprint would be appreciated. This is meant to be a working document subject to revision in order to create a possible school literacy program this year. I hope my IRA readers will be able to glean a number of good ideas to use in order to get off to another good start this year. I hope the teachers in my building will see a big picture emerge as to why we will be doing the in-service work we will be doing. I also hope they will make suggestions as to what other things we should be doing.
My Background. To give you a little background about myself, I have been teaching since 1970 and have been teaching reading since 1977. This includes university teaching and teaching as a reading specialist in some very successful title one programs. I also had the good fortune to also get trained in reading recovery and to take part in several years of training in reading and writing workshop designed by Lucy Calkins (Teachers College Columbia). Some of the trainers included Isoke Nia and Katie Wood Ray.
My Philosophy. My philosophy about how to teach reading was deeply influenced by a group of studies known as the first grade studies (Readence & Barone, 1998). This landmark study was a meta-analysis of research about various ways to teach beginning reading. The study had several important conclusions. The study found that no one approach worked best. Every approach worked better when a phonics supplement was used. Overall, teachers accounted for more of the variance in student achievement scores than any particular approach. Simply put, good teachers tended to get good results regardless of which method they used. In designing my interventions, I looked for things that allow me to help teachers differentiate instruction. I looked for things that allow me to empower teachers. I looked for things that will allow me to help my teachers differentiate reading instruction ( i.e. ,find the particular methods that work for particular children). Most importantly I look for ways of organizing instruction that provide teachers a reasonable chance to provide such differentiation.
Intervention One: Reading and Writing workshop including a strong component of student conferencing within the workshop structures.
Intervention Two: Teaching students strategies for both comprehension and word recognition. The focus is teaching students how to think (process) rather than what to think (specific content).
Intervention Three: Word Work designed to teach sound symbol relationships both inductively and deductively. Part of this word work includes how to teach sight vocabulary through the use of predictable text. Overall the emphasis is on teaching sound symbol relationships in context rather than isolation.
Intervention Four: Wide reading: Students do recreational reading in texts that are both interesting to them and at their instructional level.
Intervention Five: Data driven instruction. Sources of data include data from district tests, data from the Raz- Kids program and informal data collected by teachers.
I will now talk about each of these interventions including materials and methods I will use in order to help the teachers in my building implement the intervention.
Intervention One: Reading and Writing workshop, including a strong component of student conferencing within the workshop structures.
Reading workshop should use guided reading as its fundamental structure. Fountas and Pinnell have two excellent texts that serve as important references for implementing reading workshop. The older of the two is Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). The newer one is Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency: Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading, K-8 Fountas & Pinnell, 2006). I believe the second book reflects a more workshop like approach to guided reading. I did my summer Institute with Calkins after Pinnell visited Teachers College Columbia. As I look over the newer book, which was written after that visit, conferencing takes on a more important role than it did in the earlier version. Listening to Pinnell speak at workshops since her visit to Teachers College, it was apparent to me she was genuinely concerned about using good literature within the structure of guided reading.
Three highlights for beginning the implementation of guided reading is as follows:
- The first is to assure that literacy centers are established. These centers should be differentiated when appropriate and should include authentic literacy tasks related to strategies being learned within that week’s reading. Books I will use assist teachers in creating and managing centers are Literacy Centers in Photographs: A Step-by-Step Guide in Photos That Shows How to Organize Literacy Centers, Establish Routines, and Manage Center-Based Learning All Year Long (Campo, 2008) and Literacy Work Stations: Making Centers Work (Diller, 2003). These books together should help teachers learn how to create and manage literacy centers and also help them with the notion of why such centers are important.
- There are a number of well known books about how to carry out writing workshop, Calkins (1994), Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001, Ray & Laminick (2001). However the ones I’ll be using with the staff are Living and Teaching the Writing Workshop (Painter, 2006), and Launching the Writing Workshop: A Step-by-Step Guide in Photographs (Leograndis, 2008). I choose the former because its author was in charge of one of the Title 1 programs I worked in and as Ralph Fletcher indicates in her forward, she is easily understood and conversational in her writing style. I choose the later because it gives many practical ideas about workshop and does so through the use of very effective pictures.
- Finally, How’s it Going (Anderson, 2000) will provide the vehicle by which I will teach my staff about conferencing. Two notions that I hope to include is that conferencing can be an important teaching tool and can be used to inform future lesson plans. These are two points that were consistently made by Calkin’s cadre during my workshop training.
I will consider the next two interventions concurrently:
Intervention two: Teaching students strategies for both comprehension and word recognition. The focus is teaching students how to think (process) rather than what to think (specific content).
Intervention three: Word Work designed to teach sound symbol relationships both inductively and deductively. Part of this word work will be to teach sight vocabulary through the use of predictable text. Overall the emphasis will be teaching sound symbol relationships in context rather than isolation.
There are two landmark articles that have greatly influenced my teaching of reading. The first of these is by Goodman’(1967). His article, Reading a Psycholinguistic Guessing Game was based in part, on the notion that there are three cueing systems used by readers to decode text. He called them semantics, grapho-phonemic and syntax . At a mid-Missouri tall conference Goodman’s wife Yetta indicated that Marie Clay came to similar conclusions about the existence of three cueing systems. Her name for them was meaning, visual, and structure. Our district uses Clay’s terms.
While recognizing this notion about cueing systems has some critics, I’ve found teaching in a way that promotes the use of all three cueing systems and that encourages readers to cross check those cues does remarkably improve students reading ability. Fountas & Pinnell (1996) p.161, list the basic prompts used to encourage students to use all three cueing systems. These prompts include “ does it look right, does it sounds right, and does it makes sense.” It is important that such prompts be done near point of error, not at point of error. Doing it this way gives the student the opportunity to figure out what cueing system to use and to try it out. Near point of error prompting provides the ultimate in teachable moments. My building is small enough that I will have time to push in to each teacher’s classroom for about 40 minutes each day. I will be modeling this form of prompting for staff. I will use the “gradual release of responsibility” framework: first showing them, then working with them and eventually turning things over for them to do on their own.
A concern that is often raised by classroom teachers when I talk about prompting near point of error is that they can never have the time to listen to students one-on-one. However, there is a teaching method that lets teacher complete their small group reading while at the same time getting in those needed individual reading times. This method was part of my training by the Missouri Reading Initiative. I call it “a staggered start.” It is most often used at the very beginning levels (A-F) and goes as follows.
o First do a picture walk. Then let the students know each is going to read the entire passage.
o Each student starts reading orally at a different time. Eventually everyone is reading orally.
o Some students will finish before others. All students are instructed that when they finish they should start over and read it again (and again, and again).
o Obviously you train the students to read softly. Now you see why I call it a staggered start.
Everyone’s is now reading the story and remember they are each in a different spot in the story. During this time, the teacher can lean in and listen to one or two students. This gives the teacher a real chance to do prompting near point of error, or running records. or simply observing the child in their reading habits. The teacher should not stop the reading until each child has read through the text at least once. They can then stop the students at whatever place they are in the story. On some days teachers might let all the children read through more than once so they can work with individual children.
Once the read aloud part is over, the rest of the lesson goes as normal. I do not recommend staggered starts for every read. However using staggered starts some of the time does give teachers the option to do some actual prompting near point of error while at the same time getting their small group reading completed.
I often use Fountas and Pinnell “keep books” for the very beginning lessons. They are very low cost (as little as 25 cents a book). They are available from Ohio State University. The url information on buying “keep books” is available from Ohio State University. The url is http://www.keepbooks.org/catalog1.html. They are written for levels 1-16. At the lowest levels they have clear picture clues built around predictable text. Using them makes it really easy to teach cross-checking (pictures and letters together!) It is important that teachers learn that with the exception of phonetically irregular words, they should give the students a chance to work their own words out. Also, if students are missing more than one out of every 10 words (i.e. less than 90% accuracy) they are likely in text that is too hard for them to decode. Levels should be adjusted accordingly. On the other side of the spectrum, when students start missing only one in 20 words, it is likely time to bump them up a level IF comprehension is acceptable. In a very real way, using “keep books” in a staggered start gives an ongoing assessment of whether or not the students are reading a book at a level where they can decode.
By using “keep books,” which are low-cost and plentiful, it is possible to let the students keep the books they’ve completed in a bag rereading both individually and with a partner. Wide reading of such predictable text is in my opinion the very best way to quickly develop a large sight vocabulary. I hold the point of view that learning words in the context of a real story results in retention rates of 70% or more. By contrast, teaching words with flashcards usually results in a retention rate of 5%.
Word workstations are used along with “keep books,” the use of onset rhyme making and breaking, and word ladders. The book of lists provides a good list of the most used rhymes. Dr. Tim Rasinski, a Hall of Fame reading professor and former IRA president, has an excellent website with many free materials. Among them are word ladders that teachers can download for free; the link is http://timrasinski.com/?page=presentations. The word ladders pdf is the last one on the page.
After pushing in to my assigned grades I will have to do pull out of selected individual/groups. One of the things I will use with older readers with exceptionally weak decoding skills is Retrospective Miscue Analysis. This method was developed by Yetta Goodman who along with her husband Ken did the foundational work in miscue analysis (Brown, Goodman and Marek, 1996). Her work has greatly influenced educators using miscue analysis. This includes the work of Marie Clay, who created the MSV analysis used in our district. I’ve found that retrospective miscue analysis can often reach older readers for whom no other interventions have worked. The book I will be using to guide me is The Essential RMA (Goodman, Martens & Flurkey, 2014).
Intervention two (cont): Comprehension strategies
The other article that has influenced my teaching was written by P David Pearson. It was another landmark article. Several important ideas came from it. First the idea that comprehension can and should be taught. Durkin’s studies at the time showed that it was not being taught. He argued that comprehension strategies can be taught. Again this fits in with the idea of teaching students how to think (process), rather than what to think (product/content). Pearson identified several key strategies that should be taught.
It is important that teachers understand that their job as a reading teacher is to demonstrate and model effective strategies(I do), then give the students a chance to use strategies with help (we do), and finally help the students reached the stage where they can use those strategies on their own (you do). Pearson’s name for this was the “gradual release of responsibility.” Gradual release of responsibility is the cornerstone of what is often called “scaffolding.
One of the questions the cadre from Lucy Calkens often asked us as they trained us in workshop was what work are you leaving for the student and why? That question is useful whether teaching a comprehension strategy, a word recognition strategy, or a writing strategy. In all cases the teaching process is very similar. The teacher at some point does a clear concise lesson explaining the strategy (I do). Then the teacher provides opportunities for the student to try out the strategy with assistance from the teacher (we do). Finally the students reaches the stage where they can use the strategy on their own (you do).
In order to help teachers see that the key focus of many workshop lessons centers around particular strategies, I’m going to encourage the use of anchor charts at the time of instruction. But these are also important for students to use when they are doing their work with help or independently.
We will use both the Pinnell’s guided reading books as a source for comprehension strategies and we will also use the book Strategies That Work: 2nd edition (Harvey & Goudvis ,2007).
Intervention four: Wide reading, Students will do recreational reading in texts that are both interesting to them and at their instructional level.
In my years of working with students and at-risk buildings one of the things I’ve observed most often is that the students who need wide reading the most are the ones most likely to be doing it. It is essential that students recreational reading be done using material that is both very interesting and at a level they can decode independently. Often times, putting them in material that they can actually decode leads to older students being in material that is not just uninteresting but sometimes simply inappropriate because it is too juvenile. One resource we will use is the Raz Kids program. Raz Kids is an online reading program includes more than 1000 leveled books in multiple genres and formats. There is a good balance between fiction and nonfiction books and there are books at the lowest levels that are content appropriate for older readers.
I alluded earlier to the fact that Pinnell and many many other educators have begun to see the importance of using really good children’s literature. During an in-service, Katie Wood Ray told us that as a writer you are what you read. The intent to use Raz Kids is not as a replacement for reading good literature but rather as a vehicle to get the amount of wide reading needed to develop extensive sight vocabulary students need to handle some of the more complex text. I’m also taking care to get easier to read authors into the upper grade classroom libraries so that there are additional options for students to do wide reading
Intervention five: Data driven instruction. Sources of data include data from district test, data from the Raz- Kids program and informal data collected by teachers.
I am one of those educators who believes that we currently over testing and under teaching. I do recognize the importance of collecting data that demonstrates students are achieving. However it is important limit the time spent in such endeavors to a more reasonable amount. It is also important that the instruments used to test, measure what they say they are measuring.
One of the ways I try to avoid at least some of the over testing is to do as much of the ongoing assessment as possible as a natural part of the instruction rather than eating into instruction time with unnecessary tests. I’ve developed a simple seating chart form that allows my teachers take informal notes while they are teaching (the link to the folder with that chart is https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B4ZI3GjZTMN4UGFIY2VTWk81eWs&usp=sharing). Part of what I will be doing as I do demonstration lessons during my daily teaching with them will be to show them the kind of reading behaviors ( both comprehension behaviors and word recognition behaviors) that it pays jot down. For instance if a student is consistently guessing at words from text based on only the first letter, that is important information. It also suggests possible prompts or other teachings that can encourage them use all parts of word before they decide on what word is. In addition to these ongoing notes, Raz Kids provides extensive information on the kind of reading comprehension skills students have or have not mastered. This information is collected automatically by the Raz Kids program. That means it is part of an ongoing assessment that does not detract or take away from teaching time.
Of course the district mandates periodic testing. These tests can be used to inform placement in the reading groups. But such results can and should be tempered by the ongoing data collected by the teacher.
I hope some of the specific materials and some of the methodologies talked about in this article will help you as you start out the new year. Thank you for taking the time to read over these ideas. As I said at the outset I would welcome input on additions or changes that you think might also help to improve our students reading and writing. Please respond on the St. Louis Suburban IRA website or write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include the words IRA article in the subject of your e-mail.
An annotated bibliography of the articles and books referenced in this article can be found in a folder at the following link